Catching Up With John Allison
John Allison has been making webcomics for almost as long as the world wide web has existed. First with the comic Bobbins and then since 2002 with his current project Scary Go Round. We reviewed Scary Go Round in our December 2005 issue and interviewed John for our 2003 issue (John also did the cover art for our December 2005 issue). I got a chance to catch up with him via email on the eve of the 6th anniversary of Scary Go Round.
Back in our interview with you from 2003 you were still working a day job in addition to making comics for a living. Are you supporting yourself through the Scary Go Round empire now? Can you give me a rough breakdown of how you do it -- is it like 50% t-shirts and 50% books? Do ads play a significant role?
I was laid off from my job in early summer of 2003 and have been making a living from comics since then. Of course it's all relative, I've done dozens of freelance jobs in the meantime that had nothing to do with Scary Go Round - particularly at the start, I had to do a good spread of work. But I just cut back my last freelance illustration clients because I didn't have the time or the energy for outside work any more.
I'm not sure exactly what the breakdown of money between tshirts, books and ads is. I could probably sell a lot more tshirts if I had the inspiration to design more than about 6 a year! Books are steady sellers but a new title sells all of the old ones - it has "coat-tails" if you will, so if I could make more books, again, I'd sell more books. I'm about at the limit of my energies as far as merchandising goes. I try to put everything I can into the daily comic, I can't get excited about tshirts.
You've gone through several shifts in your approach to the art for SGR but lately it seems like you've settled more into an evolutionary process (as opposed to some of the swings between digital and hand-drawn work in the past). How comfortable are you with your artwork at this point -- do you generally feel like you get on the screen what you imagined in your mind's eye. Do you ever look at other artists and other work and feel the need to push further with it?
The really brutal swings between digital art and pen-and-ink art were the product of realising that I was working in an artistic dead-end that bored me, but also realising that I had to go a long way to make up the visual shortfall between what I could do in Illustrator and what I could do drawing on paper. It probably took a year to make up the slack.
My artwork now is all digital - I draw it with a Cintiq in Manga Studio. No one seemed to notice the switch and I have learned better than to announce that I have made some great leap forward! Working this way seems to give me the best of both worlds.
I've always gotten a few good leads on band from your album of the year charts but I don't think you've woven music into SGR like some other comics have -- I'll just name Questionable Content as an example. Have you ever consciously thought while working on SGR about using references to music and its culture in SGR?
I think all of my work is soaked in popular culture, I am fascinated by music, film, fashion, literature, politics, everything. But I don't think it's terribly good writing to have one character say to another "hey did you hear the new one by Spanky's Hammer? They're really charting new waters." People don't care. My album lists are a good way to fill five days at Christmas when no one is reading, and that's about it. I love making them but I'm sure 85% of the audience is thinking, "when will this week end".
I did tell the Captain Beefheart story, but it was the only way I could think of to fill five days. It was a nice experiment but again, I think it was a joke most of the audience didn't get. The only reason I did it was because I put a Captain Beefheart song on a jukebox at a bar in town at about 1pm and the barmaid turned it down. I was waiting for a friend and in 15 minutes I had written it all out.
Back in 2003, you mentioned that there wasn't much of a webcomics scene in the UK -- is that different now? It seems like there are more webcomics coming out of the UK and even more english-language comics coming out of Europe as a whole. Has the UK Webcomix Thing convention been a good venue for meeting fellow creators?
The webcomics scene here is still really small. There are plenty of talented people at work, but there's no sense of a glittering prize or any burning ambition to attack the mainstream. Most people are bedroom hobbyists who grew up reading 2000AD, or art school people producing glorious objets d'art once every six months. The minicomics scene is still popular but it's like the American scene that Jeffrey Brown and James Kochalka came out of - people making comics, reading each other's comics.
The UK Webcomix Thing is a great show to meet people at. I remember meeting James Turner of Beaver and Steve there at the first one I attended and being bowled over by how good his work was. But often it's hard to see things I want to spend my money on - which is never a problem at something like MoCCA or SPX.
I've read a lot of other people's comments on how to describe SGR at this point. It's in a lot of ways this alternate universe now with all these layers of characters you've introduced but it always seems to come back eventually to Shelley, Amy and Tim. Do you have some kind of overall vision for the comic that guides you through creating stories for it or do you just go where each story takes you?
I plot the individual stories carefully now (rather than winging it as I did for the first few years) but there's no over-arching concept. When I tried to do a longer story last year, I didn't enjoy it at all. I try to have a few future stories in mind so that the well doesn't run dry but they're usually just concepts. If I flesh them out too early, I lose interest in what I'm currently working on.
I would disagree that the comic always comes back to Amy, Shelley and Tim. There won't be any more Tim stories, and as time goes on, it gets harder to write Shelley stories. Once a character ceases to evolve, I lose interest. Then again, I like drawing Shelley, but I didn't like drawing Tim, so once I had to draw him over and over again (rather than cutting and pasting his annoyingly shaped head and rigid hair), I soon got sick of him.
You've been publishing SGR now for almost 6 years (this June will mark 6 years, right) -- not to be melodramatic about it, but is SGR your life's work or do you think it has a more definite lifespan and you'll turn to other creative projects at some point in the future?
To be frank, Scary Go Round, like Bobbins, might just as well be called 'John Allison Comics'. I'd like to think that my career will progress beyond just drawing a daily comic on the internet - not that there's anything wrong with that - but whatever I produce will look and sound a lot like Scary Go Round does. I just write down what I'm thinking then draw some pictures to illustrate it.